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A BBC RADIO 4 BOOK OF THE WEEK
Bessie Smith: singer, icon, pioneer.
Scotland’s National Poet Jackie Kay brings to life the tempestuous story of the greatest blues singer who ever lived.
‘A gem of a book . . . beautiful.’ BERNARDINE EVARISTO
‘A wonderful writer on a magnificent singer.’ ROBERT WYATT
‘Kay’s book is the amplifier that Smith’s voice deserves.’ SUNDAY TIMES
‘The most vivid evocation of Bessie Smith I have ever read.’ IAN CARR, BBC MUSIC
BESSIE SMITH was born in Tennessee in 1894. Orphaned by the age of nine, she sang on street corners before becoming a big name in travelling shows. In 1923 she made her first recording for a new start-up called Columbia Records. It sold 780,000 copies and made her a star. Smith’s life was notoriously difficult: she drank pints of ‘bathtub gin’, got into violent fist fights, spent huge sums of money and had passionate love affairs with men and women. She once single-handedly fought off a cohort of the Ku Klux Klan.
As a young black girl growing up in Glasgow, Jackie Kay found in Bessie someone with whom she could identify and who she could idolise. In this remarkable book Kay mixes biography, fiction, poetry and prose to create an enthralling account of an extraordinary life.
‘Biographies don’t usually bring the subject to life again. This one did. I finished the book then started it again immediately.’
‘What a life! What gulpable storytelling! Exactly the kind of writing about music we need: personal, ardent, playfully confrontational, questioning, undogmatic. A love song to a complicated idol.’
‘Pure joy: one trailblazing woman pays tribute to another. Jackie Kay finds the music in the short, dazzling, capricious life of Bessie Smith.’
Jackie Kay’s book on Bessie Smith: She has combined biographical information with a total understanding of who Bessie actually WAS. Jackie shows an empathy unusual in a biographer, the writing being enhanced by the fact that its author is also a stellar poet. Biographies don’t usually bring the subject to life again. This one did. I finished the book then started it again immediately.
A wonderful writer, on a magnificent singer ... This is a book about a woman who’s music -- basically, the Blues -- precipitated so much of what still makes our best popular music so vital, by a writer who really knows, from the heart, what she’s talking about.
What a life! What gulpable storytelling! I’d say Jackie’s account is exactly the kind of writing about music we need: personal, ardent, playfully confrontational, questioning, undogmatic. A love song to a complicated idol. And so compassionately done – she doesn’t judge, doesn’t reduce ’the Empress’ to a caricature or sensationalise the hedonism (though ohh woman, what hedonism!) but charts the dangerous charisma and above all recognises how Bessie’s conflicts made her music what it is.
Pure joy: one trailblazing woman pays tribute to another. Jackie Kay finds the music in the short, dazzling, capricious life of Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues.
More than 80 years after the rumbustious bisexual blues singer died from injuries suffered in a car crash in Mississippi, Kay recreates a lost world of vintage recordings and endless touring on the vaudeville circuit . . . We tend to think of blues artists as marginalised outsiders, but Kay’s book reminds us that, in her pomp, Smith was box office royalty.
The living Smith barrels through these pages in a whirl of outrage and appetite . . . bold . . . Kay is partly writing a love song to a hero, a woman who has become knotted into her own life . . . Kay’s book is the amplifier that Smith’s voice deserves.
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